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Style Manual

Nouns

Nouns are the words that name people, places, organisations and things. Style and grammar support how people interpret nouns in content.

Proper nouns are the names of people and specific things

Any name for a specific person, organisation, place or thing is a ‘proper noun’.

Proper nouns always start with capital letters, except for some commercial terms.

Example

June

Shark Bay

Collingwood Football Club

Torres Strait Regional Authority

Prime Minister of Australia

There are specific capitalisation conventions for the:

Common nouns are words for generic things

Common nouns describe people, places, times or things in a general sense. They have a capital letter only when they are the first word in a sentence.

Example

month

coast

local government

prime ministers

Capitalise nouns only if they are part of a proper noun. Don’t capitalise them if you use them as common nouns.

Example

The ACT’s Office of the Commissioner for the Environment was the first such agency in Australia. [‘Office’ is part of the formal title.]

I worked in the office for 11 years. [‘Office’ is not part of the formal title, even if it refers to the Office of the Commissioner for the Environment.]

Common nouns can be concrete or abstract

Concrete nouns name things you can identify through one or more of the 5 senses.

Example

server

phone

software

person

Abstract nouns name intangible things. These include ideas, emotions and physical feelings.

Example

honesty

reliance

engagement

admiration

Some nouns can be either concrete or abstract, depending on the context.

Example

The office is upstairs. [Concrete noun]

Alfred Deakin was the first to hold the office of Attorney-General in Australia. [Abstract noun]

Verbal nouns are also called ‘gerunds’

Gerunds are nouns that form by attaching an ‘-ing’ to a verb.

Example

meet [verb], meeting [noun]

report [verb], reporting [noun]

You can combine gerunds and other verbal nouns with a determiner (such as ‘my’ or ‘your’).

Example

Your writing has improved. [‘Your’ is the determiner; ‘writing’ is the noun; ‘has improved’ is the verb.]

They resent Bill’s laughing at them. [‘Bill’s’ is the determiner; ‘resent’ is the verb; ‘laughing’ is the noun.]

Verbal nouns also include nouns that relate to verbs in another way. For example, the noun can form by adding other types of suffix to a verb like ‘-ation’ or ‘-ment’. These are not gerunds.

Example

fixation [Noun related to the verb ‘fix’]

attachment [Noun related to the verb ‘attach’]

Other verbal nouns don’t have any suffix but have the same spelling as the verb. It is context that gives the distinction.

Example

fix the issue’ [verb], ‘a quick fix’ [noun]

report an issue’ [verb], ‘annual report to the minister’ [noun]

Nouns can be singular or plural

Nouns can be singular or plural. Most English words add an ‘-s’ or ‘-es’ to form the plural, but there are many exceptions. Check a dictionary if you’re not sure.

Example

a computer, many computers

a policy, many policies

the standby, many standbys

the Attorney-General, many attorneys-general

Some nouns don’t change to form the plural.

Example

an aircraft, many aircraft

Don’t use an apostrophe before (or after) the ‘s’ to show the plural.

Correct

Adjust the desks and chairs.

Incorrect

Adjust the desks and chairs.

Collective nouns describe a group in a single word

Collective nouns are a type of common noun. They label groups of people or things.

Example

crowd

committee

cluster [for example, of desks]

Subject–verb agreement

A collective noun usually has a singular verb. This is so, even if it’s made up of component parts.

Correct

The government intends to act.

The committee is meeting.

Incorrect

The government intend to act.

The committee are meeting.

An exception is when you need to draw attention to the individual parts of the collective noun.

Example

The branch meets once a week. [‘The branch’, as a whole, meets once a week. The singular form of the verb is used.]

The branch are divided over the new meeting schedule. [The individuals in ‘the branch’ have different opinions about the new meeting schedule. The plural form of the verb is used.]

Nouns can be countable or uncountable

You can sort nouns by whether they can be separated into individual units and counted:

  • You can count countable nouns.
  • You cannot count uncountable nouns.
Example

Would you like a cup of coffee or tea? [‘Cup’ is countable; ‘coffee’ and ‘tea’ are uncountable.]

A countable singular noun must have a determiner.

Correct

The report is being printed.

Our report is being printed.

Incorrect

Report is being printed.

An uncountable noun has no plural and only a singular verb. Uncountable nouns don’t need to have a determiner. Whether it has one depends on the meaning of the sentence.

Example

Respect is an Australian Public Service value. [No determiner with ‘respect’. The value is not quantifiable.]

The leadership avoided a spill. [‘The’ is the determiner with ‘leadership’. The noun refers to a single, specific group of people.]

Some nouns can be used both ways. The meaning depends on whether the noun is countable or uncountable in the way it is used:

  • In the uncountable form, it refers to the whole idea or quantity.
  • In the countable form, it refers to a specific example or type.
Example

Language is powerful. [In this context, ‘language’ is uncountable.]

Australians speak many languages besides English. [In this context, ‘language’ is countable.]

Noun trains are hard to understand

Strings of 3 or more nouns are known as ‘noun trains’. Each noun in a noun train modifies the next.

Rewrite a sentence to avoid using a noun train. This will help you write in plain language.

Write this

The agency’s new system will help to improve how they manage injuries. [No noun train]

Not this

The agency’s new system will help in the achievement of injury management outcome improvements. [Noun train included]

Release notes

The digital edition relates grammatical concepts to the principles of plain language. It relates word choice to grammatical information about types of words.

It provides an overview on types of words to introduce grammatical concepts about parts of speech and how they relate to sentence structure.

The sixth edition called types of words ‘word classes’. It had summary information about parts of speech on pages 68 to 70. This formed part of Chapter 5 on grammar.

The Content Guide did not have any in-depth information on grammatical concepts.

About this page

References

Dixon JC and Bolitho B (2005–2019a) Course notes and exercises: English grammar for writers, editors and policymakers, Centre for Continuing Education, Australian National University, Canberra.

Dixon JC and Bolitho B (2005–2019b) Report writing, Centre for Continuing Education, Australian National University, Canberra.

Murphy EM with Cadman H (2014) Effective writing: plain English at work, 2nd edn, Lacuna, Westgate.

Seely J (2001) Oxford everyday grammar, Oxford University Press, Oxford.

Stilman A (2004) Grammatically correct, Writer’s Digest Books, Ohio.

Truss L (2003) Eats, shoots and leaves: the zero tolerance approach to punctuation, Profile Books, London.

This page was updated Tuesday 13 October 2020.

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